Belgium // The Ardennes //

The Trésor du Prieuré d’Oignies

The pick of the town’s museums is also its smallest, the Trésor du Prieuré d’Oignies, housed in just one small room of a convent at rue Julie Billiart 17. It’s a unique collection that comprises examples of the exquisitely beautiful gold and silver work of Brother Hugo d’Oignies, one of the most gifted of the region’s medieval metalworkers. From the eleventh to the thirteenth century, the Meuse valley was famous for the skill of its craftsmen, who worked in an essentially Romanesque style but evolved a more naturalistic and dynamic approach to their subject matter, a characteristic of early Gothic. Hugo was an innovator in the art of filigree, raising the decoration from the background so that the tiny human figures and animals seem to be suspended in space; and niello, in which a black mixture of sulphur or lead is used to incise lines into the gold. The pieces here are elaborately studded with precious and semiprecious stones and display an exquisite balance between ornament and function, depicting minute hunting scenes, with animals leaping convincingly through delicate foliage, engraved with a Christian dedication, or embossed with a tiny picture of the artist offering up his art to God in worship. In particular, look out for the intricately worked double-crosses, the dazzling reliquary cover for St Peter’s rib, the charming songbird and goblet of St Marie of Oignies, and a magnificent cover for a Book of the Gospels. The free audio-guide in English helps to make sense of it all.